The power of play
We’re born to play for a reason and it shapes our brain from the cradle to the grave
When gaming is driven, compulsive and excludes other possibilities of social interaction or interaction with nature, “I would say it is pathological play”.
While we are born with an intrinsic drive to play, it takes environmental factors to kindle it. Brown, who will be a keynote speaker at Early Childhood Ireland’s Global Gathering next month (see panel), gives the example of an infant responding to a mother’s smiling face.
“The infant will see that face and feel safe and respond in a hard-wired, universal way, with a smile and some gurgling noises and the mother will also respond. That process in the baby is emotionally pleasurable – wants to be repeated and is also associated, as a baby moves into older period, with a similar response to a mobile overhead or an object that is shiny.”
All future play is going to build on the base formed by those interactions between mother and infant.
“If there is no mother, and there is no face and there is no holding and no touching and no music and no sound, then you have a baby who is going to be in trouble,” he says.
Tolerance for play in younger children is high in most cultures, he observes, except, increasingly, when it comes to rough and tumble play. Children are missing out on this formative experience because it is often misunderstood.
There are signals in rough and tumble play – squealing of children during chasing, shouts from those wrestling on the ground – that can be mistaken for aggression and cause adults to step in and stop what is an essential educational process for youngsters.
“They learn the roots of empathy in early rough and tumble play without a lot of consequences,” points out Brown. It teaches them languages of play, which, if not learned well, diminishes their ability to deal with the give and take that is a normal part of socialisation.
As children grow older they are under pressure to knuckle down to academic study by adults who see play as the opposite of work – instead of recognising it as essential for learning and creativity. In fact, play will continue to shape our brains – for as long as we let it.
“Even people with dementia will find some joyfulness and alternatives in play – they are not ‘undemented’ but they get happier. It works our whole life cycle.”
Symptoms of play deficiency, both in children and adults, include a lack of interest in the environment, irritability and poor response to inter-personal stress. These may also be symptoms of something more complex but within that there is usually a discernible lack of play, he says.
The amount and kind of play needed will vary from child to child, according to temperament.
“The introverted child can be happy doing isolated activities that don’t appear to be particularly playful to the outsider but which, to that individual, may be very good.
“The extroverted, exuberant child may need to be running around and playing hour after hour in order to get a sufficient amount. It becomes a judgment call on the part of the parent or the teacher as to what is adequate.”
Drive for success
In the drive for children to succeed, parents squeeze out play at their peril. If your older child, say 10-12, is very busy with ballet, music lessons, homework, gymnastics “and that child is not joyful in those experiences – look out. You are invoking a highly successful, depressed adult,” he warns.
Likewise, in the teenage years, among students under great pressure to perform well in exams, there is often a “smouldering depression and a loss of joy which is indicative of play deficiency”.
Workplaces are slow to recognise the benefit of play, even though there are studies demonstrating how playfulness boosts productivity.
The joy of finding novelty through play is part of what makes us creative and innovative creatures, Brown says, which is really important for our ability to adapt to a changing world.
It is probably no coincidence that humans are the most playful of all species. While the drive to play in adulthood is diminished, it does not disappear.